Deborah Levy: ‘We need an end to male authoritarian ignorance’

The novelist on domestic violence, gender bias and the power structures that still need to be broken down after the Covid-19 crisis.

Penguin Perspective A. C. Grayling
Tim Lane / Penguin

As I write this in the midst of the Pandemic in April 2020, my concentration is shattered. The sun is shining in London. Birdsong is louder, the air is cleaner. I have enough food and the love of many people. Yet my focus is not even fifty percent. In this regard, I don’t believe I am alone, nor do I consider lack of attention and focus a small matter. We rely on the alert attention of our ambulance drivers, our health workers and our scientists. I am also grateful to those teachers, artists, writers, composers and philosophers who gave their best attention to the ideas that have made my life more interesting.

I am aware that the coronavirus is often compared to fighting a war. People are dying, our mortality is threatened, borders are closed, we are not free to travel, we are unable to work, our children are missing school. If this is like war, it is no way to live. Perhaps we are now better equipped to understand that people fighting and fleeing wars are shattered in every way. Yet, the mainstream populist narrative for millions of distressed people fleeing from war zones was hostile in the extreme. Many of the right-wing political leaders who were complicit with this populism are now tasked with looking after our collective well-being and survival. We are in the care of men (and a few of their female consorts) who are ideologically opposed to this kind of caring and much more skilled at the politics of hostility. What’s the point of being skilled at hostility?

We have to change the way we coexist with each other.


'There was already an emergency before the emergency'

At the same time, we have to change the way we coexist with animals. Stressed animals pass virus to each other, they breathe, shit, scream and bleed together, whether in cages or wildlife markets or in the hell of industrial farming systems. And they pass virus onto humans. The boundaries between humans and animals have been shamefully transgressed.

There was already an emergency before the emergency. There was already a lack of attention before our attention was shattered. If we don’t want to better understand the ways in which pandemics are linked to climate change and loss of biodiversity, we will have to give up our lives for the current global male authoritarian passion for ignorance. In the words of the great writer and activist, Grace Paley: “We are in the hands of men whose power and wealth have separated them from the reality of daily life and from the imagination. We are right to be afraid.”

I believe our main project is to educate ourselves out of this ignorance. When the pandemic is over and we can shout in the streets again, it would be hopeful if men everywhere were to organise a global, male-only demonstration against domestic violence, which has been rampant during lockdown. The challenge would be to give your attention to finding ways to present the idea that it is un-manly to attack women in their homes, or anywhere else for that matter. This is connected to the ways in which it is also un-manly to attack the planet and the habitats and bodies of animals, or to believe that caring for others is a feminine preoccupation.

'After all, women have had to give their attention to these matters for most of our lives'

After all, women have had to give their attention to these matters for most of our lives. We would have much preferred to eat cherries in the park. 

Meanwhile, as ghostly buses make their way to destinations that now feel exotic because they are at least 40 minutes away from where I live, I find myself thinking about the heroic drivers steering their empty vehicles through the empty streets.  It’s true that we need a new world, but at this moment, I yearn to visit London Bridge and Liverpool Street Station. 

Perspectives is a series of essays from Penguin authors offering their response to the Covid-19 crisis. A donation of £10,000 towards booksellers affected by Covid-19 has been made on behalf of the participants. Read more of the essays here.

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